Conditioning and Schooling the equine athlete

For an equine athlete to remain healthy, the horse needs to have its body and mind strengthened and conditioned over a significant period of time. To perform to its highest level of potential, the horse needs to be encouraged into a ‘healthy frame’ or ‘position’ that allows it to develop the necessary muscles for balance and throughness. When these muscles have been developed through a careful and complete conditioning program, the equine athlete will be able to enjoy moving freely without injury for many years.

Proper Warm-up

An effective warm up has the benefits of enhancing performance and reducing the risk of injury. A well-designed warm up involves the gradual increase in exercise intensity, which facilitates the body’s adjustment from rest to exercise. The first objectives are to establish physical and mental relaxation in the horse, so that the limb movements become free and elastic and the horse starts to move through his/her back.

Relaxed and warm muscles are energetically efficient while tense and stiff muscles result in an overall increase in energy expenditure. Warm muscles contract more powerfully and warm fibers are more pliable. This reduces the risk of injury due to tearing of the muscle fibers.

Cold muscles are not as flexible and elastic as warm muscles and are prone to such injuries as: muscle, ligament, and tendon strains; muscle spasms; stiff gaits; and maybe even torn muscles or tendons. Hilary M. Clayton in her book, “Conditioning Sport Horses”, writes, “It can be a mistake to perform suppling exercises at the start of the warm up while the tissues are cold because the fibers in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments are more susceptible to overstretching injuries.”

Another warm-up objective is to increase blood and oxygen flow to the muscles. Clayton states, “The increase in cardiovascular and respiratory responses increases the oxygen delivery to muscles, which enhances their ability to work aerobically and reduces lactic acid build up during the workout. Therefore, a good warm up delays the onset of fatigue and soreness due to lactic acid accumulation in high intensity sports.”

Warm up times depending on different variables

  • Environmental temperature
  • Warm weather = shorter time for the muscles to warm up
  • Cold weather
  • Use of a quarter blanket on the haunches and loin area helps facilitate in muscles warming up by reducing heat loss through the skin
  • Age of the horse
  • Breed of the horse
  • Condition of the horse
  • Activity to follow

Warm-up Example

  • 10 minutes of active forward movement at the walk
  • 10 minutes of active trot or canter on the lunge
  • 20 minutes of groundwork exercises
  • Stretching exercises
  • Suppling exercises

Help keep your horse healthy, and avoid muscle strain and resulting performance issues by routinely practicing a sufficient warm up routine. The warm ups should be short so as not to promote fatigue.